Winter Olympic Gold Medalist Forced to Retire in Her Prime

Whether your clients are professional athletes or adventuresome vacationers, winter can be an especially dangerous time for high-income people.

By Ted Tefaro

Key Takeaways:

  • Whether your clients are professional athletes or adventuresome vacationers, winter can be a particularly dangerous time for high-income people.
  • Career-ending injuries or illnesses can come out of nowhere. How well are your high-profile clients protected?
  • High-limit disability programs protect from the risk of disability at the highest levels.

This past October, Kaitlyn Farrington, USA’s gold medalist in the halfpipe event at the 2014 Sochi Olympic Games, suffered a failed stunt off a small jump, landing on her upper back and neck. Unable to move for two minutes, Ms. Farrington lay in the snow “completely numb.”

Just days before the opening of the 2015 Winter X Games last month, the professional snowboarder officially announced her retirement from competitive snowboarding.

“The next quarter of my life is going to be extremely different from the first,” Farrington announced recently. “I have to figure out how to make it just as great.”

The defending Olympic snowboard halfpipe gold medalist is retiring at age 25 because of a degenerative spine condition called congenital cervical stenosis. Less than a year ago, Farrington was atop the podium at the Sochi Olympics and wondering where life would take her next. Riding on the coattails of an Olympic gold medal and competing at the top of her field, she stood at the beginning of her peak earning years. Now she’s going to have to find a new career and source of income.

Life changes in a flash

It was late October 2014, and Farrington was in Hintertux, Austria, for a product shoot with Giro, one of her sponsors. When she arrived, the weather was beautiful. But a storm moved in and two days into the trip, the glacier where they were shooting was closed. Farrington and a couple of teammates built a jump with a powder-covered grass landing and took turns filming one another launching tricks.

“The jump was tiny, maybe 10 or 15 feet over a ledge, but the landing was sketchy,” Farrington says. ”I planned to do a frontside 360, but I caught my heel edge on the takeoff and barely cleared the wall. I rotated into a half backflip and landed on my upper back and neck.“

It wasn’t the worst crash of her career—far from it, actually. But what happened next constituted the scariest two minutes of her life. “My body went completely numb,” she recalled in an ESPN interview. “I couldn’t feel anything from the neck down. I was looking up at the sky thinking, ‘Get up. Just get up.’ All I wanted to do was stand up and walk. I heard the guys yelling, ‘Are you all right?’ and all I could say was, ‘Help. Help. I need help.’”

“I told him I lost feeling in my body,” she says. “He seemed hopeful, but I could hear the light go out in him when I said I lost feeling all the way to my feet.” A Salt Lake City spinal specialist explained the term “transient quadriplegia” to her, which can be caused by hyperextending the neck and pinching the spinal cord, or by a herniated disc doing the same thing. The specialist ordered an MRI and X-rays to rule out anything more serious.

“When I went back to have him read the MRI, the first thing he said was, ’You have congenital cervical stenosis and can never snowboard again,’” Farrington says. “I burst into tears. I yelled at him and told him to get out of the room. I wasn’t ready to hear it. It was the worst conversation of my life.”

Over the next month and a half, Farrington saw additional doctors and had many more tough conversations. Each time, she was dealt the same diagnosis. She’d never heard the term congenital cervical stenosis, but she was fast becoming an expert in the condition she’d had since birth. On her MRI, the stenosis, or narrowing, of her spinal column is visible even to an untrained eye, as is a disc herniation at C6, where her spinal cord is visibly kinked.

That’s how fast life can change, whether your client is a young professional entertainer or athlete, a mid-career executive on the rise, or a successful physician or CEO in their peak earning years.

“Stenosis is not hereditary. It’s just something she was born with, like brown eyes,” U.S. Snowboard Team physician Tom Hackett told ESPN. “’Cervical’ refers to the part of the spine -- in [Farrington’s] case, her neck -- and ’stenosis’ means narrow. Essentially, the canal formed by her vertebrae that the spinal cord runs through is too narrow in that area of Kaitlyn’s spine. There is no room to allow for any movement of the spinal cord when the spine flexes and bends, to prevent the cord from getting kinked or pinched. In Kaitlyn’s spine, there is no room for error. It’s only by the grace of God that nothing worse happened before this injury.”


As Lloyd’s of London underwriters, Exceptional Risk Advisors offers top-tier athletes, entertainers, executives and professionals unique high-limit disability programs to protect from the risk of disability at the highest levels. Think about your top-earning clients; are they winter sport fanatics? When they hit the slopes this winter, are you confident that their income is adequately protected? Typically the athlete’s agents connect the athlete to a wealth or insurance advisor (sometimes the same person). The insurance advisor then contacts firms such as ours. We won’t deal with an athlete directly. See video for more.

About the Author

Edward A. (Ted) Tafaro, president & CEO of Mahwah, New Jersey-based Exceptional Risk Advisors, is an expert on high-limit specialty life, accident and disability products for clients with extraordinary insurance needs, including celebrities, athletes, entertainers, highly compensated executives and professionals. By partnering with Lloyd’s of London syndicates, his firm manages some of the largest binding authorities available in the United States for these specialty programs. For more information, contact him at 201-512-0110 or ted.tafaro@exceptionalriskadvisors.com.